Or watch the video I created around this blog post on my YouTube Channel:
Freediving is the act of diving underwater using only the air in your lungs instead of an oxygen tank. Whenever I tell people I’m a freediver and can dive to 43 metres on a single breath––which, in the world of freediving, is not particularly deep––they often conclude that freediving is some kind of extreme sport––only for the crazies out there like me.
When you look into the science and physiology that allows us to dive to sickening depths on a single breath, you realize that it’s the opposite of an extreme sport.
It’s more akin to meditation.
If you want to plunge to deeper and deeper depths, it’s inevitable that you will have to face your demons head-on. Self-doubt and fear are not only limitations in the mind––they dramatically affect your ability to relax and prevent you from doing the dive you know you are capable of. In the process of letting go, you develop the ability to observe your fear but not let it affect your mind or your body.
I believe the skills you learn while freediving can actually apply to any experience where you feel fear or anxiety. By learning and internalising these skills, freediving has helped to transform other areas of my life.
This Is Not a Sport For Me
Freediving is the act of holding your breath and diving underwater. I first discovered this fascinating sport on YouTube. I watched a freediver, dressed in a skin-tight, BDSM-esque wetsuit, dive to 100 metres. I tried to follow along and match his breath-hold, but this was like trying to play tennis like Novak Djokovic with no training––unquestionably impossible. I managed a pathetic 45 seconds. The dive to 100 metres took nearly four minutes.
Something disturbing happened as I watched the diver reach 100 metres: I panicked. My chest tightened. My mind suddenly switched gears into survival mode.
What if he runs out of air?
What if he panics, suddenly inhales water and drowns?
What if he dies?!
I was so engrossed in the dive that I put myself in his shoes (or fins?) and felt what it would be like to descend to such depths on a single breath. And because I didn’t understand freediving, I naturally assumed it was dangerous and there was a high chance of death. I quickly reaffirmed that this was not something I’d be trying anytime soon.
Little did I know what was in store for me.
My First Time Freediving
Even though my first impression of freediving was one of fear and terror, I kept watching YouTube videos and reading articles about how to train and dive deep. Eventually the evidence was overwhelming: freediving was pretty simple and the fear was just in my head.
I couldn’t allow my own negative thoughts to hold me back from such an amazing underwater adventure.
Naturally, the best way to get started freediving is to find an instructor and complete a series of training courses. In March 2017 while in Malaysia, I made the trip to Tioman, a stunning tropical island off the east coast of the mainland––about an eight to nine hour journey from Kuala Lumpur.
I would be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous and a little scared. I was never a strong swimmer, and even though I was a lifeguard in my late teens, my examiner actually helped me pass the certification by shortening the distances I had to swim.
Before the course, I had been researching how to hold my breath for longer. I practised the relaxation and breath-hold techniques frequently to develop a breath-hold of around two minutes and thirty seconds. Nothing to write home about, but I progressed and understood how it was possible to hold my breath for longer periods of time.
Of course, it’s a different game underwater!
My Dance With Fear
The first dives I attempted were awkward, uncomfortable, and often terrifying. My urge to breathe would come on strong at around five metres, in part because of the tension I was holding in my body. My mind was screaming at me to get back to the surface for the oxygen it needed to survive! My body tightened up, reducing the efficiency of my oxygen consumption and increasing my urge to breath.
The key to freediving is a relaxed body and mind. I had neither. But, like with any new skill, repetition is key, and so I continued to dive.
After two full days of diving, I finally reached my goal of ten metres in depth. For me, this was a monumental achievement and meant that I was now a certified freediver. But more importantly, I realized that the fear was all in my head.
I knew I could hold my breath for nearly three minutes. A dive to ten metres barely lasted twenty seconds, so there was no chance I would ever run out of oxygen. As I progressed, I increased my breath-hold to five minutes and thirty seconds, giving me the confidence and capacity to hit depths of 43 metres.
It is incredibly humbling to see how far I have come in such a short space of time. This further reinforces my belief that if you have a vision or goal in mind, with enough practice, focus, and determination, you can and will achieve what you originally set out to accomplish.
The way you deal with fear in freediving is exactly the same as you would in everyday life. Unpleasant emotions can be transcended by placing your awareness in your body, releasing tension, and letting go of the thoughts that caused the reaction in the first place. By learning to freedive, you’re practising all these things for several hours at a time!
Now I see freediving like meditation.
Before a dive, you’re floating face down in the water, breathing slowly through a snorkel as your limp body dances to the rhythm of the waves. You are in an almost dream-like state. Then, you take a final breath and dive down the line, equalising the pressure in your ears every few metres and releasing any tension you detect in your body.
This is why I always smile whenever someone refers to freediving as an “extreme” sport.
It’s literally at the other end of the spectrum. No adrenaline is required. It would, in fact, have an undesirable effect on the body by increasing your heart rate and oxygen consumption.
We’re All Born To Freedive
Some incredible changes happen in the body as soon as you submerge your head under water. The ancient biological mechanism that we inherited from our distant ancestors––called the mammalian dive reflex––gets triggered.
This evolutionary adaptation helps us survive for longer underwater. It’s the same adaptation that whales, dolphins, and seals activate when they swim and dive for food. It has many astonishing effects on our body, including:
A reduction in heart rate: This slows the release of oxygen into the bloodstream and allows the body to conserve more oxygen for vital organs like the heart and brain. Some divers have recorded heart rates as low as 14 beats per minute, about a third the rate of a person in a coma!
Constriction of the blood vessels: This restricts blood flow to the extremities and helps redirect the oxygenated blood back to the vital organs, which consume considerably more oxygen than the peripheral organs.
Blood fills your lungs: Due to the exponential pressure changes as you dive deeper and deeper, your blood––which remains uncompressible because it’s a liquid––fills the empty cavities in your body. The capillaries in your lungs become engorged with blood and help stop them from collapsing under the pressure.
More blood from your spleen: As part of the dive reflex, the spleen contracts and increases the volume of blood, which increases the amount of oxygen available.
Fascinating stuff, right?
It blew my mind when I discovered the amazing processes at work when we hold our breath and dive underwater. It gave me more confidence because I realized that my body was specifically adapted to keep me alive underwater. As you become a more seasoned freediving athlete, your dive reflex gets stronger and you become more adapted to deeper and deeper depths, making previous personal records a walk in the park.
Want To Get Started?
If you’re curious about learning to freedive, you can find a wealth of information on YouTube. My favourite channel is “Adam Freediver” With Adam Stern, a legend in the community and an Australian national record holder, with a free immersion dive (pulling the rope down) of 92 metres, and a personal best in constant weight (kicking down without pulling the rope) of 106 metres.
The next step would be to find a course in your area. If you don’t live near the sea or anywhere suitable for freediving, you may have to jump on a plane––the perfect excuse for a little vacation! Some of the best diving spots are in Asia, so it’s worth carving out at least two weeks to get your certifications and train. It’s amazing how fast you’ll progress even over such a short amount of time.
Aside from learning freediving to overcome your fears, you will get to experience the underwater world without the limitations of a bulky oxygen tank and scuba gear. Just slip on your mask and fins and you’re away! You’ll also develop a deeper connection with our oceans as you witness the wonders of our stunning coral reefs, and get to chase schools of bright-coloured fish like a giddy little kid!
One of the most important rules in freediving is to never dive alone, which means you’re bound to make great friends along the way. I have found the community to be very welcoming and made some great connections on my travels to dive sites all over Asia.
Even if you’re feeling the butterflies in your stomach and are not entirely comfortable with the idea of holding your breath and diving deep, just go for it. If you’re genuinely interested in learning, don’t let your fear hold you back. This could open up a whole new world for you.
Many freedivers feel a deeper sense of peace in and out of the water, and the sport certainly facilitates and encourages a healthy lifestyle. Most of the people I know use freediving as their meditation––they are so in-tune with their bodies, and dive with a clear and peaceful mind.
Although this doesn’t happen on every dive, eventually everything will click into place and you will experience the joy that everyone has been talking about.